He left me a voice mail yesterday, requesting that he come in a day early for his appointment, as he was going to need to go out of town Thursday afternoon. I spoke to him briefly, asked if all was OK. He told me that an Army buddy had died. He was going to go the man’s funeral “to pay my respects.” We scheduled for this morning.
He was a little late, but he’d called to let me know that he was having to drop his kids off at school. Upon arrival, he apologized profusely, even when told that was anything but necessary. How are you doing? “OK. Stuff like this [his friend's death] happens.” You guys close? “Yeah. We hadn’t talked for a bit, but, yeah, we were.” I’m so sorry. “Thanks.”
A young man, he has a certain rugged, outdoorsman look to him, not brawny, just solidly built. I wouldn’t mess with him, in other words, even in spite of his somewhat bashful smile and his no-big-deal demeanor. He sports a beard well, keeps it well-trimmed. His head is usually covered (a stocking cap today), and sometimes he sits with his hands in his pockets. He’s always respectful.
He usually feels world-weary to me, though. His internal, emotional energy is still present, for I can see it spark every once in a while. Usually, though, he just sits there with me, looking not as if he were going to cry, rather that as if he’s already done crying –long ago, buddy, long ago, in the “been there, done that, didn’t even want a t-shirt” kind of way.
His life? Jerry Springer Live. For the most part he plays the role of the good guy in this never-ending drama, picking up the pieces and sweeping the floor long after all the other players have left the stage to go out for drinks. Coming up was hard for him. He went into the Army to find purpose, meaning. He found it.
Then he got hurt over in the Middle East, and he had to leave the military, a medical discharge, eventually. He’d been a truck driver, a good one, by his report. Soon after he was hurt, his former truck encountered an improvised explosive device (IED).
The new driver didn’t survive.
So, yes, he wonders why he’s still here, when that guy’s not.
Sometimes he looks at his kids and sees Iraqi kids. Those memories can, at times, be less than pleasant. Yet having so much to worry about, keeping everybody on track, keeping a roof over their head, one more night, maybe a week? That all takes care of any “memories problem.” No time to think.
I ask him how the nightmares are.
Strangely enough, he smiles, one of those “you wouldn’t believe it” kind.
“I had the weirdest dream last night. You were in it.”
“Yeah. I was late getting to my appointment, and I knew that you’d told me that if I get there too late, I might have to wait a while. When I got to the VA, though, it had been bombed, burned to the ground. But you were still there. I apologized, but you weren’t going to accept it. You told me that I’d have to sit down and wait. And then you shot me in the chest.”
Well. Wasn’t expecting that.
I decided to hold off comment (I know, you think: a shrink not commenting on a dream?). Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I believe I laughed. I’m not sure. Whatever I did, he was fine with it.
He looked world-weary again as we talked about his medication, his symptoms. Finally, he said, “Can I tell you something–and, you know, you not got offended or anything?”
The unexpected, second verse. Once again, I couldn’t think of anything worth saying. So I just said, “Sure.”
“You know,” he continued, “everyone around here tries to do the right thing, but, well, sometimes I just feel like a number around here, as if everybody is just waiting for a paycheck and I’m taking up their time. You listen, though. You do.”
Then I said it.
“And then I go off and shoot you.”
At first he was a bit distressed, wanting to reassure me that he knew I would do no such thing. I sought to reassure him that I was more than convinced that was the case. Still, I wondered, might your body not be quite so sure? After all the pain, all the promises that have been made to you, all the times your heart’s been broken, might it not make sense for the body to feel–and to dream–that Deaton will just be more of the same–and so just shoot me and get it over with, why don’t you?
He paused. Then he smiled again–this time, though, a smile worthy of his world-weariness.
“Does it feel like it’ll always be this way?” I ask him.
“Hard to believe that relationships can make a difference, eh?”
Now no world-weary smile. Just world-weariness.
“Yeah,” he whispers. “It is.”
So many veterans came to combat in pain. They left in even more pain. But in a way, they left only with a more unimaginable understanding of their own pre-combat pain. You try to do what’s right. You try to do what people want. They say they care.
And then they shoot you.
We’re going to speak by phone next week. I promised to leave my guns at home.